Movies: Avatar

Considering how much as this movie has been marketed and discussed over the months since its release, I suppose I must be one of the few people around who didn’t know what it was about, until I saw it last night. I knew there were some blue aliens – that much is obvious from the cover of the DVD, which I had seen in Wal-Mart. I knew the CGI was supposed to be spectacular.

But the title puzzled me, the few times I bothered to wonder about it. In Hinduism, an avatar is an incarnation of a deity in human or animal form. In computer terms, an avatar is a representation of someone on screen, so that you can associate a visual image with the person you’re interacting with, instead of just a name. But I couldn’t imagine how either of those meanings fit with the setting of an alien world inhabited by blue humanoids.

Once I saw the avatars and realized how they worked, the concept particularly interested me. No details are given about how the bodies are grown, other than that they fuse genetic material from both an alien and a human. The avatar closely resembles a typical alien though there are slight differences (eyebrows, number of fingers), but also bears some resemblance to the human’s facial appearance. Only that human can control the avatar – which is how the Jake Sulley finds himself taking the place of his dead twin brother, for whom he is a perfect genetic match.

I once worked at writing a sci-fi story that involved people having clones made of themselves, to use as spare bodies in case of serious injury or death. The person’s brain would be “backed up” from the damaged body, and “restored” to the cloned body, overwriting whatever had already been there.  Once cloning became a reality, however, I realized that my idea would never work. Even if there were a way to “back up” and “restore” a “brain state,” a body cannot properly develop without being used, and that means an active body and brain, not one that floats in a tank waiting to be used.

Physical therapy, similar to that given unconscious or paralyzed patients, could maintain some level of muscle tone. But consider how much intensive therapy it takes for a patient to relearn how to walk after a serious spinal injury, even though the patients brain knows exactly what walking is like. The brain has to establish the required connections with the body by doing things, not just by thinking about them (though studies have shown that just thinking about how to do things does have some benefits in improving learning).

Avatar glosses over this matter, but it is a small thing in the context of the whole movie. Various reviews, as well as articles on the science in the movie, have pointed out other highly implausible aspects. But on the whole, Avatar is extremely well thought out and produced. Many movies have impressive special effects, but in some the effects seem to be done for the sake of spectacular effects, while in others the effects fall short of achieving the realism that seemed to be intended.

I was impressed to read that director James Cameron wanted to produce this movie years ago, but waited until the technology was ready. He knew what he wanted the audience to see, and he made sure he had the technology that could put his vision on film. I knew while I was watching it that much of what I was seeing was CGI, but it blends so seamlessly with the real-life sequences that the effect is very convincing. I can only imagine how much more convincing it would be viewed in 3D.

My son commented at the end that he thought the description he had heard, “space Pocahontas,” fit the movie well (referring to the Disney animated movie Pocahontas). There is the same contrast between the natives, who live in tune with nature and can even communicate with it, and the greedy pale-faced invaders who are more than ready to kill the “savages.” I thought of other movies it reminded me of, such as Braveheart and Dances with Wolves.

Some reviews I have read complain that “we’ve seen this before” in those and other movies. That’s true, but few have done it so well. I was particularly reminded of Star Wars, which in its time was a similarly impressive advance in the use of special effects. There was nothing particularly unique in the story that Star Wars told.

Good vs evil, a ragtag army winning against a vastly superior military force, an unknown youngster turning out to be not only the hero but also discovering his true identity – these have been the stuff of great stories for centuries. The difference was how well Star Wars told the story using the cinematic resources available at the time.

In the same way, I can’t see holding it against Avatar that its plot seems derivative from other stories. Every generation retells old stories, but dresses them in new clothes. Avatar‘s “clothes” are far more spectacular than most, and even people who don’t think much of the story enjoy the visual treat.

One complaint I read was that the movie is lacking in humor, and I’d have to agree that it is. Another said that the characters are not fully developed, that the “bad guys” in particular are one-dimensional. That is probably true also, but the movie is close to three hours long as it is. One movie can’t be everything, and this one does enough things superbly well that I barely noticed how long it was.

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2 Responses to Movies: Avatar

  1. Margaret says:

    Okay, you were “one of the few people around who didn’t know what it was about,” and I was one of even fewer who had never heard of the movie at all until just now. Am I too old?

  2. modestypress says:

    I saw it. I was underwhelmed. Whenever “civilized” people meet “primitive” people, the civilized people win, usually by being more uncivilized than those they conquer, who were plenty uncivilized, just not as successful at conquering and exterminating.

    Lucky for us, no one from a “move advanced” civilization has yet landed on earth.

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